North Korea took $2 billion in cyber attacks to fund weapons program: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korea has generated an estimated $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyberattacks to steal from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges, according to a confidential U.N. report seen by Reuters on Monday.

Pyongyang also “continued to enhance its nuclear and missile programs although it did not conduct a nuclear test or ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) launch,” said the report to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee by independent experts monitoring compliance over six months.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment on the report, which was submitted to the Security Council committee last week.

The experts said North Korea “used cyberspace to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks to steal funds from financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges to generate income.” They also used cyberspace to launder the stolen money, the report said.

“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cyber actors, many operating under the direction of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, raise money for its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs, with total proceeds to date estimated at up to two billion US dollars,” the report said.

North Korea is formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Reconnaissance General Bureau is a top North Korean military intelligence agency.

The U.N. experts said North Korea’s attacks against cryptocurrency exchanges allowed it “to generate income in ways that are harder to trace and subject to less government oversight and regulation than the traditional banking sector.”

The Security Council has unanimously imposed sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Council has banned exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capped imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

U.S. President Donald Trump has met with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un three times, most recently in June when he became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.

They agreed to resume stalled talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. The talks have yet to resume and in July and early August, North Korea carried out three short-range missiles tests in eight days.

The U.N. report was completed before last week’s missile launches by North Korea, but noted that “missile launches in May and July enhanced its overall ballistic missile capabilities.”

The U.N. experts said that despite the diplomatic efforts, their “investigations show continued violations” of U.N. sanctions.

“For example, the DPRK continued to violate sanctions through ongoing illicit ship-to-ship transfers and procurement of WMD-related items and luxury goods,” the U.N. report said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

U.N. Security Council considers demanding Libya ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is considering a British-drafted resolution that would demand a ceasefire in Libya and call on all countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance.

Diplomats from the 15-member council are due to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the text that also calls for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya, which has been gripped by anarchy and conflict since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The latest flare-up began almost two weeks ago – during a visit to the country by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – when eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of the capital Tripoli.

Haftar’s forces predicted victory within days, but Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized government has managed to bog them down in southern suburbs with help from armed groups from various western Libyan factions.

The Security Council informally expressed concern on April 5, calling on all forces to de-escalate and halt military activity and specifically calling out the LNA.

However, in the following days the council was unable to issue a more formal statement, diplomats said, as Russia objected to a reference to the LNA, while the United States said it could not agree a text that did not mention Haftar’s forces.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution, seen by Reuters, expresses “grave concern at military activity in Libya near Tripoli, which began following the launching of a military offensive by the LNA … and threatens the stability of Libya.”

It also demands that all parties in Libya immediately de-escalate the situation, commit to a ceasefire, and engage with the United Nations to end hostilities.

Diplomats said the draft text could be put to a vote as early as this week. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, Britain, France, Russia or China to pass.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants, while western powers support Serraj.

The draft U.N. text “calls upon all member states to use their influence to ensure compliance with this resolution.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Venezuela hit with new U.S. sanctions after aid clashes

By Roberta Rampton and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – The United States targeted Venezuela’s government with new sanctions on Monday and called on allies to freeze the assets of its state-owned oil company PDVSA after deadly violence blocked aid from reaching the crisis-hit country during the weekend.

The United States also took its pressure campaign to the United Nations Security Council, asking that body to discuss the situation in Venezuela, diplomats said.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions were imposed on four Venezuelan state governors allied with the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, blocking any assets they control in the United States.

The new sanctions were announced in Bogota as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and opposition leader Juan Guaido met with members of the Lima Group, a bloc of nations from Argentina to Canada dedicated to peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.

Pence said the United States would stand by Guaido until freedom was restored to the oil-rich nation. He called for all Lima Group nations to immediately freeze PDVSA’s assets and to transfer ownership of “Venezuelan”assets “in their countries” from “Maduro’s henchmen” to Guaido’s government-in-waiting.

He also said tougher measures were coming.

“In the days ahead … the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime’s corrupt financial networks,” Pence said. “We will work with all of you to find every last dollar that they stole and work to return it to Venezuela.”

Guaido, sitting next to Pence at the meeting, asked for a moment of silence for those killed in what he called the “massacre” of the weekend.

At least three people were killed and almost 300 wounded during the protests and clashes on Saturday as U.S.-backed aid convoys attempted to enter Venezuela to deliver food and medicine.

Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, has urged the bloc to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro.

Unlike the Lima Group, of which the United States is not a member, the Trump administration has so far declined to rule out the use of military force. But Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela Martinez denied there was any division in the group over the use of force.

Pence also called for Mexico and Uruguay, two-left leaning regional governments, to join most of the region’s other powers in embracing Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president.

Washington wants the 15-member U.N. Security Council to formally call for free, fair and credible presidential elections with international observers. Russia, which along with China has major investments in Venezuela’s energy sector and back Maduro, proposed a rival draft resolution.

Violence escalated during the weekend when the convoy of trucks with food and medicines was blocked by soldiers and armed groups loyal to Maduro. He says the aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup against the OPEC member.

In the Venezuelan town of San Antonio, near the border with Colombia, residents on Monday chafed at the continued border closure ordered by Maduro’s government last week.

Residents increasingly cross into the neighboring country to work and buy basic goods that are unavailable in Venezuela, which has been wracked by years of hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. Illegal crossings over back roads known as “trochas” generally require paying tolls to low-level criminals who control them, known as “trocheros.”

“We were hungry when before the border closed. Now it will be even worse,” said Belkis Garcia, 34, walking with her husband along a trail that leads to Colombia. “We have to pay (to cross), so the little money we have for half the food is not enough. We don’t know what will happen if the border continues closed.”

Four people have been killed, 58 have suffered bullet wounds and at least 32 arrested in unrest since Friday, local rights group Penal Forum said in a press conference.

The four governors sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury include the flamboyant Rafael Lacava of state of Carabobo, who in 2018 visited Washington as part of talks that led to the release of Joshua Holt, an American who was imprisoned in Venezuela for nearly two years. Lacava goes by the nickname “Dracula” in reference to his habit of doing late-night patrols and is known for off-the-cuff social media videos.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Roberta Rampton, Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Aislinn Laing in Santiago, Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Mayela Armas and Anggy Polanco in Urena, and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Trott)

Iran says will not halt aerospace program despite U.S. warning

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends India-Iran business forum in New Delhi, India, January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Iran will continue with its aerospace program despite U.S. warnings, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Wednesday, adding there was no international law prohibiting such a program.

Zarif, who is in New Delhi on a bilateral visit, also told Reuters that leaving a 2015 nuclear deal agreed with world powers is an option available with Tehran but is not the only option on the table.

The United States earlier this month issued a pre-emptive warning to Iran against pursuing three planned space rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology.

Under the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.

Iran has ruled out negotiations with Washington over its military capabilities, particularly the missile program run by the Revolutionary Guards. It says the program is purely defensive and denies missiles are capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadan; Writing by Nidhi Verma; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

Israel says Hezbollah closed precision-guided missile plants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem December 16, 2018. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday Hezbollah had shut down plants to develop precision-guided missiles but was imperiling Lebanon with a cross-border tunnel network he deemed “an act of war”.

Netanyahu spoke hours before the U.N. Security Council was due to discuss Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group, and appeared aimed at swaying world powers to order stronger intervention by U.N. peacekeepers.

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel deems Hezbollah, against which it fought an inconclusive war in 2006, its most potent foe. Israeli forces have repeatedly struck suspected Hezbollah arms transfers via Syria during its civil war, but avoid such action in Lebanon.

Israel and the United States believe Hezbollah has sought homegrown production of precision-guided missiles that could paralyze Israeli civilian infrastructure.

Addressing the United Nations on Sept. 7, Netanyahu identified three such plants around Beirut airport – a disclosure that Lebanon’s foreign minister, a political ally of Hezbollah, dismissed at the time as fabricated.

“The underground sites for precision conversion of missiles, which (Israeli) military intelligence gave me, to expose, those sites were closed,” Netanyahu told a conference on Wednesday.

“They are trying to open other sites,” he said, without elaborating. Hezbollah hoped to have thousands of precision-guided missiles by now but instead had “at most, a few dozen”, according to Netanyahu.

In a separate speech to parliament, Netanyahu focused on four tunnels uncovered this month, whose presence was confirmed by UNIFIL peacekeepers and which Israel says were to be used for infiltrations of its northern villages.

Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels.

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“This is not merely an act of aggression. It is an act of war,” Netanyahu said.

Lebanon is fully committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry called on the Lebanese army “to take all necessary measures to ensure (the resolution) is well implemented in coordination with UNIFIL forces, especially in light of the tensions at the border in recent days.”

It added that it had not seen any “engineering works” being done on its side of the border.

Netanyahu accused UNIFIL of inaction, saying Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has grown tenfold since 2006 and that every third home in southern Lebanon was being used by the guerrillas.

The Security Council, he said, should ensure “UNIFIL is not restricted by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army in any way, and reports on any obstructions” of the peacekeepers’ mandate to enforce the 2006 Lebanon ceasefire.

Israel has itself violated the truce with overflights of Lebanon for surveillance or Syria sorties.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

Iran confirms missile test in defiance of U.S.

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – A senior Iranian military commander confirmed that Tehran recently carried out a ballistic missile test to the anger of the United States, the Fars news agency said on Tuesday.

The Revolutionary Guards official’s comment came after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion earlier this month that Iran had test-fired a missile capable of carrying multiple warheads and reaching the Middle East and Europe.

“We will continue our missile tests and this recent action was an important test,” Guards’ airspace division head Amirali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

“The reaction of the Americans shows that this test was very important for them and that’s why they were shouting,” he added, without specifying what type of missile had been tested.

The U.N. Security Council met last week over the test that the United States, Britain and France said flouted U.N. restrictions on Tehran’s military program.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran has ruled out negotiations with Washington over its military capabilities, particularly the missile program run by the Guards. It says the program is purely defensive and denies missiles are capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads.

Hajizadeh said Iran holds up to 50 missile tests a year.

“The issue of missiles has never been subject to negotiations and nothing has been approved or ratified about its prohibition for the Islamic Republic of Iran in (U.N.) resolution 2231,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday, according to the Tasnim news agency.

“Our defense doctrine is basically founded upon deterrence.”

Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.

Some states argue the language does not make it obligatory.

Last month, Hajizadeh said U.S. bases in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf were within range of Iranian missiles.

In October, the Revolutionary Guards fired missiles at Islamic State militants in Syria after the Islamist group took responsibility for an attack at a military parade in Iran that killed 25 people, nearly half of them Guards members.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Cawthorne)

Trump’s U.N. envoy: ‘Every day I feel like I put body armor on’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses a United Nations General Assembly meeting ahead of a vote on a draft resolution that would deplore the use of excessive force by Israeli troops against Palestinian civilians at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump came into office disparaging the United Nations and appointed politician Nikki Haley as the ambassador to carry out his disruptive agenda, but she has also shown Trump how the world body serves his purposes, specifically on North Korea.

The U.N. Security Council’s unanimous adoption of tougher sanctions three times last year that put pressure on Pyongyang to enter talks on scrapping its nuclear weapons program is the example Haley gave Trump in a phone call in June.

In an interview with Reuters, Haley recalled telling Trump: “We would not be in the situation we are with North Korea without the U.N. because that was the only way to get the international community on the same page.”

The United States and other countries believe the sanctions helped to bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un around to meeting with Trump at a historic summit in Singapore in June.

Haley said Trump asked her what she thought of the United Nations, then 17 months into her post and after the United States became the first country to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council. She said she rattled off a litany of complaints.

“Unbelievably bureaucratic, it wastes a lot of money, it has some real biases against Israel, against us at times, it ignores a lot that’s going on that needs attention.”

Haley’s relay of their phone call illustrates how she guides the president who shuns the international forums and pacts the United States has helped build over decades. When Trump took office, he called the U.N. “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”

Some diplomats have said they see the former South Carolina governor as the stable face of U.S. foreign policy. When Trump leaves them confused, some say they look to her for interpretation.

“My job is to give clarity to everything the administration’s doing so that no one wonders where we are. I always wanted to make sure there was no gray. That it was black and white,” Haley said in the interview during a trip last month to India, the country from which her parents emigrated to the United States.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described Haley’s job as selling the “administration’s anti-U.N. positions to the public.”

“That annoys other diplomats,” Gowan added.

RUSSIA TENSIONS

Haley has long taken a tougher public stance on Russia than her boss. In May she described Russian expansionism in Ukraine as “outrageous” and said the U.S. position “will not waver.”

Days later, however, Trump urged the Group of Seven countries to reinstate Russia, booted out for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Two weeks before Trump’s July 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Haley told Reuters that “basically what the president is saying is it’s better for us to have communication than not.”

But then the summit turned into a nightmare for the White House when Trump, at the joint news conference, sided with Putin’s denials of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election rather than the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.

A political outcry in Washington drowned out Trump’s message that the two nuclear powers should improve their relations, which are at a post-Cold War low.

Haley has not responded to Reuters’ requests for comment on the summit.

Differences over Russia also caused rare public friction for Haley within the administration when she announced in April that Washington was going to sanction Moscow over its support of Syria’s government. Trump then decided not to go ahead.

“The president has every right to change his mind, every right,” Haley said. Trump never raised the incident with her, she said.

Her U.N. counterparts describe her as charming and yet very tough. She sees herself as a fighter.

“I don’t see (my role) as pushing an ‘America First’ policy, I see it as defending America because every day I feel like I put body armor on. I just don’t know who I’m fighting that day,” Haley said.

Haley carved out a high-profile role within the Trump administration from the moment she was offered the job, telling the president she would only accept it if she was made a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council.

“She’s got an eye and ear for where the politics of an issue are,” said a senior Western diplomat, who, like all those consulted at the United Nations, would only speak on condition of anonymity.

Those kinds of instincts have helped put the 46-year-old mother of two on the list of possible Republican presidential candidates. She dismisses the presidential chatter and said it has never come up with Trump, who intends to run again in 2020, “because he knows he doesn’t need to raise it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Arab states launch biggest assault of Yemen war with attack on main port

By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Mokhashef

ADEN (Reuters) – A Saudi-led alliance of Arab states launched an attack on Yemen’s main port city on Wednesday in the largest battle of the war, aiming to bring the ruling Houthi movement to its knees at the risk of worsening the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.

Arab warplanes and warships pounded Houthi fortifications to support ground operations by foreign and Yemeni troops massed south of the port of Hodeidah in operation “Golden Victory”.

Fighting raged near Hodeidah airport and al-Durayhmi, a rural area 10 km (6 miles) south of the city, media controlled by the Arab states and their Yemeni allies reported.

The assault marks the first time the Arab states have tried to capture such a heavily-defended major city since joining the war three years ago against the Iran-aligned Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa and most of the populated areas.

The United Nations says 8.4 million Yemenis are on the verge of famine, and for most the port is the only route for food supplies.

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet behind closed doors on Thursday – at the request of Britain – over the attack on Hodeidah, diplomats said.

The Houthis deployed military vehicles and troops in the city center and near the port, as warplanes struck the coast to the south, a resident speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters. People fled by routes to the north and west.

Residents emerged from homes in the late afternoon to shop for food before the breaking of the Ramadan fast, he said.

CARE International, one of the few aid agencies still there, said 30 air strikes hit the city within half an hour. “Some civilians are entrapped, others forced from their homes. We thought it could not get any worse, but unfortunately we were wrong,” said CARE’s acting country director, Jolien Veldwijk.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV quoted witnesses describing “concentrated and intense” bombing near the port itself.

“Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict have to do everything possible to protect civilians and ensure they have access to the assistance they need to survive,” said Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

The U.N. special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said the world body was talking to both sides to try to avert a battle. “We call on them to exercise restraint & engage with political efforts to spare Hodeidah a military confrontation,” he tweeted.

U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi said there was a danger Yemenis might try to flee across the sea to Somalia or Djibouti.

The Arab states say they will try to keep the port running and can ease the crisis once they seize it by lifting import restrictions they have imposed. Port workers told Reuters five ships were docked at Hodeidah port unloading goods, but no new entry permits would be issued on Wednesday.

Western countries have quietly backed the Arab states diplomatically, while mostly avoiding direct public involvement in the conflict. A major battle could test that support, especially if many civilians are killed or supplies disrupted.

The United States, Britain and France all sell billions of dollars of weapons a year to the Arab countries. Aid agencies urged President Emmanuel Macron to cancel a planned Paris conference on Yemen co-chaired with Saudi Arabia.

The operation began after a three-day deadline set by the United Arab Emirates for the Houthis to quit the port.

“The liberation of the port is the start of the fall of the Houthi militia and will secure marine shipping in the Bab al-Mandab strait and cut off the hands of Iran, which has long drowned Yemen in weapons that shed precious Yemeni blood,” Yemen’s Arab-backed government-in-exile said in a statement.

Its leader, exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, said his government had proposed compromises but would not let the Houthis hold the Yemeni people “hostage to a prolonged war which the Houthis ignited”.

A Yemeni anti-Houthi military official said the alliance had brought to bear a 21,000-strong force. It includes Emirati and Sudanese troops as well as Yemenis, drawn from southern separatists, local Red Sea coast fighters and a battalion led by a nephew of late ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, who has threatened attacks on tankers entering the Red Sea, warned the alliance not to attack and said on Twitter his forces had struck a coalition barge. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition.

The Sunni Muslim Arab states see the Houthi rise as expansionism by their Shi’ite foe Iran. They aim to restore Hadi, who was driven into exile in 2014.

The Houthis, from a Shi’ite minority that ruled a thousand-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962, say they took power through a popular revolt and are now defending Yemen from invasion.

Yemen has been in crisis since 2011 mass protests that ended Saleh’s 33-year rule. Hadi came to power in a Saudi-brokered transition, but the Houthis drove him out. For a time Saleh joined forces with the Houthis, but they turned on each other last year and Saleh was killed.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Hesham Hajali in Cairo and Hadeel Sayegh in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Peter Graff; Editing by David Stamp and Rosalba O’Brien)

North Korea ‘declines’ South Korea media for nuclear site event; China urges ‘stability’

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in deliver a statement at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

By Heekyong Yang

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has declined to accept a list of South Korean journalists hoping to observe the closure of its nuclear test site, South Korea said on Friday, raising new questions about the North’s commitment to reducing tension.

North Korea had invited a limited number of journalists from South Korea and other countries to witness what it said will be the closing of its only nuclear weapons test site at Punggye-ri next week.

The North Korean offer to scrap the test site has been seen as major concession in months of easing tension between it, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other.

But the remarkable progress appears to have been checked in recent days with North Korea raising doubts about an unprecedented June 12 summit in Singapore between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, and calling off talks with the South.

The South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles dealings with the North, said on Friday North Korea had “declined to accept” the list of journalists submitted by the South for the test site dismantling.

The ministry did not elaborate but the North Korean decision is likely to raise doubts about its plan for the test site.

Trump on Thursday sought to placate North Korea after it threatened to call off the June summit, saying Kim’s security would be guaranteed in any deal and his country would not suffer the fate of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, unless that could not be reached.

North Korea had said on Wednesday it might not attend the Singapore summit if the United States continued to demand it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal, which it has developed in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions to counter perceived U.S. hostility.

On Thursday, North Korea’s chief negotiator called South Korea “ignorant and incompetent” and denounced U.S.-South Korean air combat drills and threatened to halt all talks with the South.

Trump, in rambling remarks in the White House’s Oval Office, said as far as he knew the summit was still on track, but that the North Korean leader was possibly being influenced by Beijing.

But he also stressed that North Korea would have to abandon its nuclear weapons and warned that if no deal was reached, North Korea could be “decimated” like Libya or Iraq.

‘PEACEFUL MEANS’

China, responding to U.S. President Donald Trump suggestion that Beijing may be influencing North Korea’s new hardline stance, said on Friday it stands for stability and peace on the Korean peninsula and for settlement of confrontation over its development of weapons through talks.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about Trump’s comments, said China’s position had not changed and he reiterated that it supported the goal of denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula.

“We are consistently supporting all relevant parties in resolving the peninsula issue through political consultations and peaceful means,” Lu told a regular briefing.

Kim has made two visits to China recently for talks with President Xi Jinping, including a secretive train trip to Beijing in late March, his first known visit outside North Korea since coming to power.

He flew to the port city of Dalian this month.

Both times, Kim’s encounters with Xi were cast by Chinese state media as friendly. They included beachside strolls and Xi saying that previous generations of North Korean and Chinese leaders had visited each other as often as relatives.

The warmth between the two leaders marks a sharp reversal in what had been months of frosty ties, as China ratcheted up sanction pressure on North Korea in response to its relentless missiles and nuclear tests last year.

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and considers it an important security buffer against the U.S. military presence in region.

What had seemed until this week to be rapidly warming ties between North Korea, on the one hand, and South Korea and the United States on the other, had fueled fears in Beijing that it might be left out of a new deal on the peninsula, according to analysts.

(Additonal reporting by Micheal Martina, in BEIJING; Writing by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

North Korea says will stop nuclear tests, scrap test site

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

By Soyoung Kim and Cynthia Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Saturday it would immediately suspend nuclear and missile tests, scrap its nuclear test site and instead pursue economic growth and peace, ahead of planned summits with South Korea and the United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country no longer needed to conduct nuclear tests or intercontinental ballistic missile tests because it had completed its goal of developing the weapons, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

Kim is scheduled to hold talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next week and with U.S. President Donald Trump in late May or early June.

The pledge to halt the development of nuclear weapons, initiated by his grandfather, would mean a significant reversal for Kim, 34, who for years has celebrated such weapons as a pillar of his regime’s legitimacy and power.

A testing freeze and commitment to close the test site alone would fall short of Washington’s demand that Pyongyang completely dismantle all its nuclear weapons and missiles.

But announcing the concessions now, rather than during summit meetings, shows Kim is serious about denuclearisation talks, experts say.

“The northern nuclear test ground of the DPRK will be dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test,” KCNA said after Kim convened a plenary session of the Central Committee of the ruling Worker’s Party on Friday.

The North’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Pyunggye-ri site is North Korea’s only known nuclear test site. All of its six underground tests were conducted there, including the last and largest in September.

APPLAUSE FROM TRUMP

Trump welcomed the statement and said he looked forward to a summit with Kim.

“North Korea has agreed to suspend all Nuclear Tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the World – big progress! Look forward to our Summit,” Trump said on Twitter.

South Korea said the North’s decision signified “meaningful” progress toward denuclearisation of the peninsula and would create favorable conditions for successful meetings with it and with the United States.

China, North Korea’s sole major ally, has been frustrated by its defiant development of weapons and welcomed the announcement, saying it would ease tension and promote denuclearisation.

“The Chinese side believes that North Korea’s decision will help ameliorate the situation on the peninsula,” a foreign ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, said in a statement.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it welcomed the announcement by North Korea and called on the United States and South Korea to reduce their military activity in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also welcomed the North Korean statement but said it must lead to action.

“What’s important is that this leads to complete, verifiable denuclearisation. I want to emphasize this,” Abe told reporters.

Australia and Britain were also cautious.

The British government said in a statement that Pyongyang’s commitment was a positive step and hoped it indicated “an effort to negotiate in good faith”.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “verifiable steps” would be needed to ensure testing had indeed been halted.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said North Korea’s move was a positive step and called for an “irreversible denuclearisation” of the country.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said North Korea’s announcement was a step in the right direction but it must “disclose its complete nuclear and missile program in a verifiable way”.

EVIDENCE

“We’re all looking for evidence that Kim is really serious about negotiations, and announcements like this certainly suggest he is, and that he is trying to make clear to the world that he is,” said David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

North Korea has said its nuclear and missile programs are necessary deterrents against U.S. hostility. It has conducted missile tests with the aim of being able to hit the United States with a nuclear bomb.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

The tests and escalating angry rhetoric by Trump and Kim raised fears of war until, in a New Year’s speech, the North Korean leader called for a reduction in military tensions.

He sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the South in February, leading to a thaw in relations with his old enemies.

Nam Sung-wook, professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul, said it was “sensational” that Kim had personally declared plans to suspend nuclear development, but added that his remarks left questions.

“It still does not seem clear if it means whether the North will just not pursue further development of its nuclear programs in the future, or whether they will completely shut down ‘all’ nuclear facilities. And what are they going to do with their existing nuclear weapons?” Nam said.

Many U.S. officials and experts doubt Kim’s sincerity about denuclearising, viewing the recent flurry of diplomacy as a ploy to win relief from economic sanctions.

U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and extended over the past decade have banned critical exports such as coal, iron ore, seafood and textiles while limiting oil imports.

That has threatened the policy of “byungjin” – simultaneous military and economic development – that Kim has adopted since taking power in 2011.

Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said he did not believe Pyongyang was ready to give up its nuclear weapons.

“Kim is just saying that now that the nuclear development is complete, he will put all the efforts toward building an economy,” Koh said.

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Alana Schetzer in MELBOURNE; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Roche)